Restoring the Eldridge Street Synagogue: Interview Amy Stein-Milford
Amy Stein-Milford is the former Deputy Director of the Museum at Eldridge Street. During her 18-year tenure, she oversaw the building’s re-opening following its restoration, the commission of a new stained glass window, and the creation of a new visitor center and permanent exhibition. In an interview with intern Julia Echikson, she talks about the building’s transformation and the Museum’s preservation ethos.
Julia Echikson: What was your first impression of the Eldridge Street Synagogue?
Amy Stein Milford: I first entered the synagogue 20 years ago. At the time it was in a state of severe deterioration. The walls were down to just lath and plaster. But the building still had a power and poignancy. Even during that period of decline, we [Eldridge Street Project staff and docents] gave tours to the public.
What was it like to give tours when the building was in such severe decline?
We had limited hours. The sanctuary didn’t have heat or air conditioning. In the winter, we would all wear layers of clothing to keep warm.
People’s responses to the building back then were so different then they are today. How could they not be? Today you enter a sumptuous interior. Then you were standing in a wreck. Visitors wanted to know what happened. They would compare Eldridge Street to the abandoned synagogues of Europe. Many had seen synagogues in similar shape there. But the reason for the decline of those European synagogues was so different. They were horrific. The Jewish community had nearly been decimated during the Holocaust along with their houses of worship. In the United States, though, Eldridge Street’s decline was largely due to immigrant success. People left the Lower East Side out of choice. They were eager to leave the crowded streets and tenements of this area for more affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx and beyond. That put the synagogue’s decline in perspective.
Why did the building go through a period of decline? How was it rediscovered?
The history of the Eldridge Street Synagogue reflects the Jewish American experience. It was built in 1887 during a time of massive migration, when more than 26 million immigrants, including 2.5 million Jews, came to the United States (between 1880 and 1924). The synagogue flourished during that time. It served the vibrant Lower East Side Jewish immigrant community.
The synagogue’s story reflects trends in United States history, too. Following the First World War, the country was having the same debates about immigration that we are having today. In response, in 1924, Congress imposed strict immigration quotas. This brought a studden stop to the numbers of Jews and other Eastern and Southern European communities entering the country. As Jews left the Lower East Side, there were no new arrivals to replace them.
The Great Depression took its toll on the sanctuary as well. Early minute books show that, while the congregation spent money to help fellow congregants in need, they were no longer spending money to spruce up and repair the sanctuary. In their early years, they added electrical lights, repainted the sanctuary, and added new plumbing. Those types of expenditures stopped during the Depression.
Following World War II people left the Lower East Side for the suburbs. This move from urban to suburban areas was a national trend, occurring in cities throughout the nation. The congregation dwindled until it was no longer able to afford maintaining the grand upstairs sanctuary. They moved to a smaller worship space on the lower level, and continued praying there even throughout the restoration.
How was the building rediscovered and made into a museum?
In the 1970’s a New York University Professor, Dr. Gerard Wolfe, was writing a book about the synagogues of the Lower East Side. He convinced the shammos, or caretaker, of the synagogue to let him see the abandoned sanctuary. It was like “entering the Twilight Zone,” he said. Holes punctured the roof. Pigeons roosted in the women’s gallery. Stained glass was falling out of its casing.
Roberta Brandes Gratz, an author and preservationist, started the restoration effort. She and others founded the Eldridge Street Project. In the earliest stages the restoration was a grassroots effort. More than 18,000 people donated money. The story of this building resonated not only with Jews in New York City and across the country, but also with people who recognized the value of preserving our nation’s history. Brooke Astor, the late great philanthropist, was one of the project’s earliest funders.
You decided to restore and not renovate. What’s the difference?
Renovating connotes change. It’s about modernizing the building, making additions or changes unrelated to the building’s original structure. Restoring is about return. You bring the building back to its original status. You retain elements that reflect the passage of time. We restored the synagogue. Today, when you enter the Eldridge Street Synagogue, you largely see what an immigrant of 100 years ago would have seen.
What were the first steps of the restoration?
The first steps of any restoration are the essential ones, such as repairing the roof and stabilizing the building. The restoration began by conducting temporary repairs to the roof to stop the inflow of water, which caused most of the damage. Afterward, we stabilized the structure of the building.
After completing the emergency works, we created a lower level to house the HVAC systems. This isn’t glamorous work. But it’s what heats, cools and ventilates the building, preventing further damage from temperature fluctuation. The dramatic changes in temperature caused the stained glass windows to warp.
The last step addresses the aesthetics of the building such as painting the walls and repairing the stained glass window and lighting. Once the money was in place, it took less than year to complete.
How did you reconcile adding modern utilities with restoring the building?
That’s a great question. How do you make a Victorian-era building accessible to 21st-century visitors? How do you make a building fully accessible, while not intruding on the historic interior? We resolved this dilemma by, quite literally, digging down. The Eldridge Street Synagogue originally had just three stories. We created a fourth, subterranean level to house modern systems. It was an amazing structural feat, as we had to support the top three layers while digging below to create the fourth. If you look in the main sanctuary and the women’s gallery, there’s almost no indication of the building’s sophisticated heating and cooling systems. Most everything looks as it did in 1887 even while there are these high-tech systems in the sub-cellar to maintain the building.
How did you know you were correctly restoring the building?
I asked one of the architects the same question. She said that ‘if you listen closely the building will tell you its story.’ So that’s what we did. Though we didn’t have any of the architectural drawings enough of the wall painting, the stained glass and lighting were intact. The restorers catalogued and analyzed everything and used it to piece together and recreate the synagogue’s original designs.
What were the underlying principles of the restoration?
The first is to salvage as much of the original fabric as possible. We were adamant about saving every element of this building. Rather than ripping out the original structure, we saved as much of the original material as we could. The wall painting, lighting fixtures and stained glass window are either original or based on early designs.
The second is to follow the line of the original artisans and use their methods. In the 19th century, artisans worked by hand, not by computer. In our 21st-century restoration, we followed that ethos. For example, in restoring the painted walls and ceiling, rather than using computer generated drawings, the restorers followed the line of the original artisans. The human hand makes mistakes, which adds warmth and authenticity to the building.
The third is to leave intact elements that show change. For example, the ring of bare lightbulbs around the ark’s Ten Commandments is not original to 1887. The congregation added the bulbs in 1907 when the synagogue was electrified. Those lights bear testament to a moment of change in the building’s history and the intoduction of new electric technology. So they have been retained. Similarly, we opted to retain an unrestored panel of lath and plaster. It is a poignant reminder of the once precarious state of the sanctuary, how very easily this building could have been lost.
The eastern window is the only element in the sanctuary that was not restored. It is entirely new. Why is that?
The most striking example of a change to the building is the eastern window. It was originally a stained glass rose window. The congregation repaired and replaced it in 1944 at a time when they were struggling financially. They chose an inelegant, yet economic solution — clear glass blocks. When the restoration began, the glass block window was still in place and the Museum was faced with a classic preservation dilemma. What do you do with a major design element that has been altered, particularly when there are no visual documents that indicate what was there originally.
We talked to preservationists, artists and architects. There was no consensus as to what to do. Some suggested that we leave the window because it’s part of the building’s story. Others proposed that we create something similar to the stained glass window on the building’s facade as it is original to 1887. In the end, we commissioned a new window. We worked with artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.
Why did you chose Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans’s design?
Their design is beautiful but that is not the only reason why the Museum selected it. The window conveys motion and rupture, themes that are so meanginful at this site. It responds, too, to the history and aesthetics of the building. Kiki Smith talked about there being many designs in this Victorian building. She didn’t want to add another design style. Instead, she selected a pattern that was already in the building, the celestial star motif found in the painted wall and domes. She and Deborah Gans then illuminated it in stained glass. Kiki also talked about how the five pointed star is evocative of the stars on the American flag. Yet she and Deborah placed a six-pointed Star of David at the center, or the heart, of the window. Together the stars suggest the union of Jewish and American traditions that the synagogue’s congregants found here.
The new window is exciting because it allows the Museum to extend the story of the building. The synagogue opened in 1887 but its story continues even today and beyond. This window marks the 21st century moment of restoration and revitalization. One hundred years from today it, too, will be enfolded in the building’s history.